Ideas for House of Lords Reform

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Photo: By U.S. Departement of Defense (http://defense.gov) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Reform of the House of Lords is one of those curiosities in British political history. Proposals for reforming the upper house have surfaced on occasions since the Commons first debated hereditary peerages in 1886 and 1888. Yet 128 years later there is still little visible agreement on how a reformed House should look and operate.

This is where pro-reform advocates have found life difficult. On one hand there has not been widespread enthusiasm for change with Liberal Democrats championing Lords reform whereas the Conservatives have largely been in favour of the status quo. In the latest efforts, debated in the summer of 2012, proposals tabled for reform were opposed by 91 Tory MPs.

On the other hand disagreements abound over how to reform the Lords. Should the chamber be 100% elected? Should a proportion of members be appointed by an independent panel with the rest elected and on a regional basis? Should ‘peers’ be term-limited? Those who oppose reform can accuse their opponents of lacking a clear, coherent blueprint for change. The BBC’s Nick Robinson had reported before the debate of the said reform proposals in 2012, that the general view inside the ‘Westminster village’ was that the proposals wouldn’t be enacted because those who didn’t want any change would unite with those who wanted different kinds of change and defeat the Coalition’s plans. To illustrate, in 1968 proposals for a wholly elected Lords brought together an unusual pairing in Michael Foot (who favoured the abolition of the House of Lords) and Enoch Powell (who backed the status quo) in opposing the measure.

Is reform necessary? I believe it is. I view New Labour’s changes in 1999 to be incomplete as peers are chosen either by political party leaders or they assume their seats for services rendered by their ancestors centuries ago. This blog post will outline a few of my ideas for changing the British upper house.

1) Remove the hereditary peers

It seems extraordinary in a 21st century democracy that 92 of our legislators (and remember that until 1999 that figure was 600) are entitled to their positions because of their birthright. Does inheriting your peerage make you a more capable parliamentarian?

2) Remove the Church of England bishops

In a country with multiple Christian churches, that is multi-faith and also largely secular why should Anglican bishops, and not just a handful but twenty-six, automatically receive seats?

3) Strike a balance between elected and appointed members

With regards to the elected /appointed members debate the new House of Lords could be two thirds elected and one third appointed. To the current format’s credit I think there is a lot to be said for having appointed peers from a variety of different backgrounds with different experiences and expertise. On the current Lords roll call there’s Lord Winston (science), Lord Sugar (business and enterprise) and Lord Puttnam (arts and film) among others. Professor Vernon Bogdanor, a constitutional expert, and others have observed that countries that elect their upper house, the composition of these houses is not too dissimilar to the composition of the lower house in these countries. Hence there is an evident depth of knowledge and expertise from an appointed system.

4) Appointed peers would be selected by an independent body

This is a more complex part of Lords reform – how would appointed members be elected? Here I have looked to Ireland and, in what may come as a surprise to many, Malawi, for ideas. Forty-three of the sixty members of the Irish upper house, the Seanád, are chosen by local and national politicians from five panels of individuals with backgrounds in one of five fields or ‘panels’ (administrative, agricultural, cultural and education, industry and commerce and labour.) Similarly one third of Malawian senators are chosen by senators from the elected majority of interest groups ranging from business and education to unions and disabled citizens. The problem with the Irish-Malawian style system is that the selection process remains in the hands of politicians and a criticism aimed at the process in Ireland is that cronyism and partisanship remain prevalent with former politicians, party loyalists and donors receiving their rewards.

No selection panel can be truly independent and selectors can all be swayed by their own political beliefs and partisan attachments. However, an Irish-Malawi-style appointments system selected by an independent body of people also drawn from sectors such as education, charities, commerce, labour etc. would be an improvement.

5) Members of a reformed British upper house could be elected from national constituencies (England, Scotland, Wales & Northern Ireland)

The 2012 reform proposals recommended the adoption of regional multi-member constituencies, yet why not have national constituencies as opposed to South-East England and Yorkshire & Humberside etc.? Numerous upper houses aim to ensure regional representation, most notably federations like the US, Switzerland and South Africa or cultural, linguistic and ethnic groups/minorities (see parts of Africa and Northern Ireland parliaments.)

I know people will cite population differences, but why should England be divided into what are rather artificial regions when Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales remain as whole constituencies? California and Texas remain as complete entities in the Congress despite being thirty times larger than Wyoming and Alaska. As many people feel an attachment to one of the states that make up the United Kingdom, would it not be a legitimate suggestion to have national constituencies represented in a reformed House of Lords? Another solution here would be to have members elected and selected to represent the whole of the UK instead of pre-determined constituencies, a system based on the lines of Israel’s Knesset.

Reforming the House of Lords is not a political priority and to make matters more difficult to those of us advocating reform, the question of ‘how’ to reform the chamber divides many of us. No system will be perfect and it’s impossible to satisfy everyone. History has shown that constitutional changes often happen infrequently. A good place to start in reforming the upper house would be to first remove the remaining hereditary peers and to take the selection process out of the hands of senior politicians.

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The Importance of Fathers

 

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Photo: By Iambromount – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44983999

 

I recently watched a segment from an ITV programme where Ian Wright, known to people who follow football as the chirpy ITV pundit and former Arsenal and England striker, is reunited with his childhood mentor and primary school teacher Mr. Pigden.

It was certainly quite moving to see Wright, who thought that his old teacher had since died, do a double take as Mr. Pigden approached before, overcome, hugging the older man. Away from the scene Wrighty revealed that Mr. Pigden had been the “first real, positive role model” in his life. His own father had long been absent and his relationship with his step father was non-existent. The experience of this meeting, he continued, made him realise just how important it is to have such a male presence, as a boy growing up. Mr. Pigden had not only taught him to read, write and play football, but gave him responsibilities in the form of collecting registers and acting as milk monitor and became a consistent calming influence and a provider of encouragement.

Speaking from my own experience I can understand the importance of having a father figure who is active and present in your life as a boy and as a teenager. To me, my Dad was the man I wanted to grow up to be like. I can’t imagine life, and I’m sure my sister will agree, without Mum and Dad. Both parents. Something a lot of kids growing up don’t have. Furthermore, the low number of male primary school teachers means that boys can pass through their first decade without any sustained interaction with a man.

The research highlights the fundamental role active Dads play in family life. Children, (and this is more the case with boys) raised in homes where the father is absent are more likely to abuse alcohol and other drugs, be incarcerated and have fewer, if any, qualifications.

It’s all understandable. Raising one child is difficult enough let alone three, four and possibly more children especially when you’re a single parent. Having a second adult in the house, father or step father, is beneficial from a financial perspective and for sharing parental responsibilities, however what is also crucial is that the boy sees another male, an older version of himself. If he sees Dad acting in a positive way like going out to work and caring for his family and establishing limits and boundaries as a parent then it is surely positive for the son’s development as he’s got someone to emulate. Without this influence he may harbour fierce resentment to the man who abandoned his mother and his family and feel a strong sense of rejection, two feelings that could possibly spell trouble in later life. Murdered rapper and former gang member Tupac Shakur offered an interesting perspective on this:

“I know for a fact that had I had a father, I’d have some discipline. I’d have more confidence.”

“Your mother cannot calm you down the way a man can. Your mother can’t reassure you the way a man can. My mother couldn’t show me where my manhood was. You need a man to teach you how to be a man.”

Yet discussing the absent fathers issue is problematic. In some quarters raising it is seen as a thinly-veiled attack on single parents, and by extension, women. Their solution, it seems, is simply to provide financial assistance to the large number of women raising children alone. The state, critics say, has become the ‘father’ in these families. Is this really the answer?

Someone who has been vocal in highlighting the problem of absent fathers is Labour MP for Tottenham David Lammy. Like Ian Wright and Tupac he too came from a home without a father figure present (his Dad walked out when he was 12.) In writings for national newspapers he suggests making fathers register their names and NI numbers on birth certificates and to extend schemes adopted by City firms (wherein successful men are sent to schools to paint fences and tend to gardens) to the classroom. Government Advisor on Youth Violence and ex-gang member Sheldon Thomas agrees with Lammy, stating that fathers’ roles in society have been overlooked by successive governments and believes that absent fathers are a source of many social ills and played a part in the 2011 summer riots.

None of these arguments are to denigrate and shame single parents. Surely a government cheque is no substitute to having two dedicated, loving parents in a child’s upbringing? That’s not to be ‘anti-single parent’ but to be pro-family and pro-child.

General Election 2015: why things look good for Ed and not Dave

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The Next PM? Photo: By EdMiliband (Flickr: Labour Party Conference, Manchester) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Until recently, I was rather dismissive about Ed Miliband and Labour’s chances, on a superficial level, at the next general election which is now only nine months away. However, after looking into it in greater detail I’ve had second thoughts. I now think that prospects are looking better for Miliband and his party and it is the Tories who have more to be concerned about.

The reasons why I – and no doubt others – have been doubtful of a Labour victory were incumbency and Miliband’s unpopularity with the electorate. It is uncommon in British politics for a government to be voted out of office after only a single term. This last time this happened was in 1974 which is the only time in the postwar era. As for Miliband’s unpopularity – he has been consistently less popular than David Cameron – who’s not exactly Britain’s favourite man either. Another fact that will sit uneasily with Ed: no Opposition has ever triumphed at the ballot box without having either a more popular leader or a better reputation for economic management than the government of the day.

The Labour leader has struggled to make a solid impression on the country and his party has had problems as well. Labour has never held a commanding lead over the Tories in four years in opposition; previous oppositions who have gone on to win power have held substantially larger leads over their rivals in government, according to leading pollsters. Labour is losing the argument on the two most salient issues to the British public: the economy and immigration. On both, the Tories are deemed more competent.

So why, in spite of all this, you may ask, do I believe that the outcome will be a Labour win? I think that Miliband could be ushered into Number 10 not because of widespread rejection of the Conservatives and the coalition, or for real popular support for Labour. Instead, Labour’s victory could come as a result of an inherent bias in the electoral system that disadvantages the Tories – something that will play on the minds of Tory activists, insiders and politicians. This is due to Labour’s support being based mainly in densely populated urban areas whereas Conservative support is more widely distributed.

The last two general elections illustrate this well. Labour topped the popular vote in 2005 and gained a majority of sixty-four with 35% of the vote. In 2010 the Conservatives gained 36% of the vote yet were twenty seats short of an overall majority. It has been calculated that Labour will need a lead of three percentage points in the popular vote to return to office next May. The Tories will, because of this bias, need a lead of seven percentage points. Labour has been better placed to secure this lead, according to polling.

Cameron’s party will also be in the odd position that they will have to increase their share of the vote of 36% won in 2010 to secure the further seats to ensure a majority at Westminster. In achieving this they will have to go against precedence: ruling parties have been more likely to experience a depletion of their vote share at subsequent elections. Incumbents have lost, on average, 3.7% of their vote. The Conservatives can’t afford this to happen to them this time. To make matters worse for Cameron and his party it looks very unlikely that they will be able to count on their coalition partners the Lib Dems to make up the necessary numbers in the Commons. Languishing in the polls Liberals are expected to slump badly on election day. Should they claim say 15% of votes cast then this would translate to around 19 seats, in what would be a hefty defeat for a party with currently 57 to its name.

The European elections in May have passed but UKIP’s role in next year’s contest still remains, and will continue to remain, in political discourse. This could be to the advantage of Labour. Although some of the most pro-UKIP areas are in Labour constituencies like Doncaster and Rotherham, these are seats, as columnist Andrew Alexander, writing for the Oxford Royale Academy points outs, where Labour hold commanding majorities whereas the Tories are in danger of losing votes to UKIP in marginals, the seats needed to win an election. In another piece of bad news for the Tories, Lord Ashcroft’s polling of marginal seats has Labour leading in most. Yet have UKIP peaked and when the general election comes, will many UKIP voters defect like they did between 2009-10 and give the Tories a boost? Well, a British Election Study survey found that 58% intend to stick with UKIP next May. (That figure was 26% in 2009.) Andrew Alexander delivers a stark verdict:

“Their (UKIP) presence will destroy any Tory chances in the marginal seats, costing them government.”

A week is a long time in politics, to use the cliché of clichés, making nine months seem like a long time indeed. Even if more ‘UKIP-Tories,’ scared by the prospect of Prime Minister Miliband, flock to the Conservative banner, a reduced UKIP base could still spell anathema to the Tory party in the marginals. Then there is the big obstacle that is the bias in the electoral system. They will simply need more votes to gain those extra seats. This could be the biggest mountain of all to climb considering incumbents do tend to lose, not gain votes at subsequent elections.

Ed may surprise many of us if he receives the keys to Number 10. But has it been a real possibility for a while now?

Direct Democracy: should we have more of it?

Direct democracy, with its origins in Ancient Athens where free adult males were entitled to attend forums to decide community issues, is prevalent in certain jurisdictions today. In Switzerland and a number of American states, mainly in the west of the country, citizens have the opportunity, through initiatives and referenda, to vote on a variety of issues. In this year alone the Swiss electorate have rejected the introduction of a federal minimum wage and approved measures to reimpose EU immigration quotas and to implement a lifetime ban on convicted paedophiles from working with children.
US states where the practice is common, such as California, Colorado and Oregon, often hold multiple votes on varied and sometimes controversial matters. Recent high profile examples are Washington and Colorado’s legalization of marijuana in November 2012.

People in the above jurisdictions are also empowered to put questions to a vote before the voting population, including amendments to the state, or in Switzerland’s case, federal Constitution if a certain number of signatures are gathered over a given period of time. The Swiss have more opportunities to vote than any other country as direct democracy occurs on different levels, at the municipal, cantonal and federal levels.

Should the use of direct democracy be more widespread? Should other countries adopt the blueprint used in parts of the United States and Switzerland? Supporters say it would broaden and strengthen democracy by giving the masses more of a say in the political process. There is also an argument that more direct democracy creates a more politically informed electorate more likely to participate in politics. Political scientists have queried this latter point and considerable research has been conducted into whether US states where direct democracy is commonplace boast higher turnout rates compared to those where the opposite is true. Several studies have found that initiatives and referenda can stimulate turnout in ‘low information,’ or less ‘visible’ electoral contests such as midterm Congressional elections as opposed to higher profile Presidential elections when on the same ballot sheet.

Critics of direct democracy claim that it can thrust large, often complex policy decisions into the hands of ordinary citizens who do not possess the knowledge or expertise to make informed decisions. Earlier this year Switzerland rejected a proposal to purchase Gripen fighter jets from Sweden. Would the vast majority of voting adults have adequate knowledge of the country’s defence requirements? Would voters take the time to study the pros and cons of adopting this measure before casting their votes?

Additionally could the regular use of referenda result in ‘voter fatigue’ – a phenomenon used to describe when there seems too much to vote on. On a given November election day a Californian or Coloradan may be asked not only to vote upon perhaps 8-10 initiatives but also choose their member of Congress, Senator, state officials and, depending on the year, Governor and President as well. By putting more issues on already crowded ballots, would we, the voters, be giving ourselves too much to think about as voting day nears?

I for one believe in spreading the direct democracy process so as to give citizens more of a say in how their region or country is run. By doing this it may make ordinary people feel like a more empowered part of the political process. Yes that would mean transferring certain power from politicians and civil servants and moving it to ‘the masses’ as some may put it, but maybe this isn’t such a bad thing. Politicians are hardly experts on all issues and like most voters they too do not have time to properly scrutinise and analyse each vote they make. They are swayed by their own beliefs and ideologies (and not to mention the party whipping system) just as us mere mortals outside of politics are. That is not to say that legislatures should be redundant but governments could offer referenda on matters that would prompt constitutional change and allow citizens to petition and gather signatures on issues to be put before voters in a way similar to the initiative process described above.

Of course if more countries, such as my native Britain, were to better embrace direct democracy, there would be plenty to discuss as to how it would operate. (How long would supporters of a particular measure to be put on the ballot have to collect signatures for instance?) Whatever the terms might be I’m sure many of us would welcome the further, more frequent opportunities to effect change that the greater use of direct democracy would give us.

The Rise of UKIP

 

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Photo: Lewis Clarke [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

They were predicted to triumph in this year’s European Parliament elections and last Sunday when the results were announced it was confirmed: the UK Independence Party were the country’s biggest party, winning 27 percent of the vote and securing 24 seats in the European Parliament. Having achieved this feat, they created history by becoming the first party other than Conservative or Labour to win a nationwide election in a century.

Sunday night proved to be a good night for other eurosceptic parties across the Channel too. France’s Front National, the Danish People’s Party and Greece’s SYRIZA all topped the count in their respective countries whereas in other countries, eurosceptic parties made strong gains. So what are the reasons behind UKIP’s rise? There has been plenty of talk from politicians and journalists about voters’ disenchantment with the main political parties, along with concerns over immigration, economic prospects and politics in general. All of these are not far from the truth. Back in late April-early May pollsters YouGov conducted surveys in six EU countries (UK, France, Germany, Finland, Denmark and Sweden) and found that government disapproval exceeded 50 percent in each country. According to the EU’s polling agency Eurobarometer, trust in the EU has been at an unprecedented low in the past year, a decline going back to 2008-9.

Championing withdrawal from the EU is of course part of UKIP’s DNA and Britain could, out of the twenty-eight states that comprise the bloc, take the crown for being the most eurosceptic. Britons feel less ‘European’ than their neighbours, hold more negative views of the European project and a higher percentage of the population favour quitting the Union. Does this push more people into the UKIP camp? Perhaps, but Europe is not a priority to British voters, not in a way the ‘I’ word is. Any guesses for what that word is?

YouGov and fellow pollsters Ipsos-MORI have found immigration and race relations to be the most salient political issue to the UK electorate. It now equals or surpasses the economy in importance (the first time since summer 2008 that the economy hasn’t been the number one issue.) As we all know, UKIP want to curb and control immigration levels. Interestingly, the demographics citing immigration as the main issue are the lower skilled, (the ‘C2DE classes,’) those aged 55 and over, precisely the two demographics from which UKIP have derived a lot of their support.

Yet a group that has turned into a prominent support base for Nigel Farage’s party are former Conservative voters. Before the recent European elections, 42 percent of respondents who voted Tory in the 2010 General Election, said they intended to vote UKIP in the forthcoming European elections. Among the nine thousand adults questioned were two thousand who intended to vote UKIP. Forty-nine percent of this grouping said that they had voted Tory in 2010.

“These figures,” writes Peter Kellner in the accompanying commentary for YouGov, “confirm that the Conservative have by far the largest problem with UKIP.” However Labour may have reasons to worry due to UKIP’s strong following amongst the lower skilled. This is a central argument in Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain a new book released this year by political scientists Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin. If UKIP are able to harness support from both parties’ bases then one could argue that UKIP’s success in the long-term may come through forcing Labour and the Conservatives to toughen up on immigration laws and turning the latter ‘more Thatcherite’

The rise of UKIP has garnered much attention although ultimately it is still early to say how they will fare in the long-term. Come next year, when the General Election is scheduled, UKIP’s healthy 27% vote share may slump as it did in 2010 following a second place finish in the European elections of 2009.There will also be the innate bias of the electoral system to contend with. What will be the fortunes of the party in the event of Britain exiting the EU following a referendum in 2017, if that occurs? Before too long they may end up being described by political scientists as a ‘flash in the pan party,’ in other words they peak but then quickly decline.

For the time being, as long as immigration remains a salient issue and there is widespread disapproval of Westminster and Brussels then UKIP may continue to register a substantial level of support. With the General Election less than a year away a robust UKIP in the mix could make things that more interesting.

England’s World Cup Squad: Ashley Cole’s omission and building for the future

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Cole v. Abate (England v. Italy, Euro 2012 quarter final) Photo: Football.ua [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

England’s World Cup squad has raised few eyebrows. Following injuries to Andros Townsend and Theo Walcott earlier in the season predicting the squad of twenty-three was rather straightforward. The only real uncertainty was whether Ashley Cole would make the cut, and this was answered the day before when Cole revealed on Twitter that he hadn’t been picked and so announced his retirement from the international game.

In my mind there is no doubt that Cole should be heading to Brazil next month. To me it’s a simple case of this: you should take the best players that are available to an international tournament. Leighton Baines and Cole are the best left backs in the country so should therefore be in the World Cup party. Cole’s replacement, and understudy to Baines, 18-year old Luke Shaw of Southampton, has received plaudits for his first full season of senior football yet doesn’t tick the boxes that Cole does. The Chelsea fullback has won 107 caps over thirteen years during which time he has been perhaps England’s most consistent and reliable performer and has staked serious claims to be considered the best in his position in world football. In addition he counts appearances at three World Cups and two European Championships on his CV, containing a certain Cristiano Ronaldo on England’s left flank in two quarter finals. In his club career Cole has also played for numerous successful Arsenal and Chelsea teams. If Cole was to go to Brazil as back-up to Baines he would bring a wealth of ‘big game’ experience. My concern is that Baines may pick up an injury before or during the tournament. If before then Roy Hodgson would be left to promote 21-year old, uncapped Jon Flanagan from the standby list.

Like any supporter I wholly advocate introducing new, younger players. The reasoning behind Shaw’s inclusion is sound, getting him integrated into the England setup. However at eighteen he has more than ample time to gain this experience. The Euros in France follow in two years times and then the Russia World Cup in 2018. Should Shaw continue to progress and stay injury free then he could be in or around the national team for the next dozen years or so albeit probably initially as Baines’ understudy. At 33 Cole is not the ‘future’ but for the here and now, and with a World Cup imminent, Cole would be the better choice for the reasons listed above, even if he remains on the bench. When it comes to the big stage he’s been there, done that, and is someone you could rely on if called upon.

Lots of supporters like to talk about “concentrating on the future” to the extent that they think that a particular tournament ought not to be given high priority because they are pessimistic about the team’s chances. Instead they favour channeling resources into preparation for future competitions, (‘building for the future.’) I find this logic baffling in all honesty. If we are to neglect and demote the importance of certain tournaments then what is the point of being there? Should we just withdraw from participating in competitive football for a while? Could you imagine any serious manager, particularly one heading say Honduras or Iran, telling his players and the national media: “Look everyone, we really haven’t got much of a chance to progress very far in this competition, so we’re going to take our foot off the pedal. We’ll give it more of a go next time when I believe our chances will be greater. Sorry.”

Of course it is vital to build for the future but by firstly focusing on the present you can build a platform for the years ahead. How you do in the future can depend in part on the present. Going back to the Shaw/Cole question, I hate to sound downbeat about the former’s inclusion. Shaw may end up appearing in the tournament and looking like a natural when doing so however I stick to my original philosophy of selecting the best, and most suitable, players and going on track record, Cole should have a ticket to Brazil. We will be building for the future at the World Cup – there is a youthful edge to this squad – but there’s also the here and now to get right first.

The European Parliament: How relevant is it?

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Photo: [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The European Parliament is often accused of lacking significant power and for being little more than a talking shop. This begs the question: just how relevant is the only directly elected EU institution?

The European Parliament website states that it is a chamber elected by the citizens of Europe, which encourages us to make our voices heard. (“This is your assembly.”) However the attitude across the EU member states is one of apathy and disinterest. There was a large variation in voter turnouts between countries at the last European Parliamentary elections in 2009, however the EU average turnout was just 43%. This figure has been in decline since the first European Parliament elections in 1979 when 63% passed through the polling booths. Europeans have turned out in lower numbers than they have done in national elections. Eurobarometer, the EU’s polling agency, has found that knowledge of the EU appears to be sketchy across its 28 member states. For instance ninety-three percent of British adults surveyed by YouGov were unable to name even one of their MEPs.

Not only are Europeans ignorant about the EU as a whole, they are also mistrustful of it. Trust has fallen to a record low over the past year and Eurobarometer has recorded a decline in trust since 2008-9. As European Parliamentary elections approach in late May eurosceptic parties are expected to make gains. The UK Independence Party (UKIP), France’s Front National, Greece’s SYRIZA, the Austrian Freedom Party, the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom and the Danish People’s Party are all well placed to take the largest share of the vote in their respective countries.

Going beyond people’s perceptions and knowledge, there is what has been called a ‘democratic deficit’ in Brussels, namely an accusation that the real power within the EU lies not within the elected European Parliament but in the unelected European Commission. Although a ‘legislature’ the European Parliament, unlike parliaments in democracies around the world, is not empowered to draft legislation. Instead, it has the power to accept, amend or reject directives and regulations proposed by the Commission. The Budget is likewise drafted by the Commission before it is submitted to the Parliament. For legislation to become law it must be approved by both bodies in what is called ‘co-decision’ however co-decision does not apply to taxation, industrial or foreign policy or new eurozone members. In such areas the Parliament gives only an advisory opinion, known as a ‘consultation procedure.’ Some agreements require the ‘green light’ from Parliament who are unable to modify the text but can reject it.

What about when it comes to appointing nominees to the Commission, including to the Commission presidency? Again, the Parliament’s role is a reduced one. MEPs must approve the Commission President and Commissioners must appear before MEPs before they can vote on the Commission as a whole.

The structure of the Parliament is problematic. Composed of 766 MEPs from the 28 member states every national delegation to the Parliament is a minority, and so are therefore disadvantaged when standing up for their national interests. How much clout can the EU’s least populous states Malta, Cyprus and Estonia have with six MEPs each? (The number of MEPs each country elects is relative to population.)  Even larger delegations from the likes of Germany and France only constitute a fraction of the number who sit in the assembly. Furthermore, due to the division of the Parliament along political, rather than national lines, this is made more difficult as national delegations will find themselves dispersed during parliamentary sittings.

Ignorance about and lack of interest in the EU institutions are widespread however these can be found in national and local politics as well. The real crux of the debate is the EU Parliament’s inability to draft legislation and how in certain areas it seems to serve solely to ‘rubber stamp’ the Commission’s wishes.

How democratic- and relevant- are our votes next month?

President Higgins in Britain: A Positive Move

 

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Photo: By Setanta Saki [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When Queen Elizabeth arrived in Ireland in 2011 it was the first state visit to the country by a British monarch since before Irish independence in 1922. Now in 2014 Irish President Michael D. Higgins has concluded the first state visit by an Irish President to Britain. The Queen has also expressed a desire to return to Ireland in two years time to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising. When commenting on these visits various commentators have noted how, as recently as the 1990s, such a visit to either side of the Irish Sea would have been ‘unthinkable.’ Perhaps that’s a fair assertion.

Although relations with other countries have normalised following conflict the British-Irish relationship has been different. The long, complicated and often bitter history between the two countries, and, more recently, the Northern Ireland situation and the republican bombing campaign in mainland Britain have made this a challenge. On a more personal level, a series of Irish leaders have had family ties to the armed struggle for independence. To British leaders there have been the memories of terrorist attacks between the 1970s and 90s including the murders Earl Mountbatten, the Queen’s uncle, and several British parliamentarians.

These visits have been both positive and overdue. In spite of past differences President Higgins urged people to “think of all we have in common” and hailed the contributions to British life that Irish immigrants have made. Aside from a common language we have shared ancestral ties as well. Furthermore Britons are a large minority in Ireland as the Irish are in Britain. Both countries’ economies are deeply intertwined. Ireland is the UK’s fifth largest export market; the UK is Ireland’s second largest export market. Additionally, there are strong trade links for services.

Much has been made of the decision to invite former IRA commander Martin McGuinness to the Windsor Castle banquet attended by Higgins and others. However we should remember the atrocities committed by both republicans and loyalists and for us to move forward old foes have to reach out to one another. A ligean ar súil agam go bhfuil imeachtaí le déanaí céimeanna breise sa treo ceart. (Let’s hope that recent events are further steps in the right direction.)

England’s Six Nations campaign: A good platform?

 

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The 2003 vintage. The benchmark of all England sides since. Photo: BombDog (http://www.flickr.com/photos/jonlucas/1555930/) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s now been over a week since the 2014 Six Nations came to a close but I wanted to offer some thoughts on England’s performance in this year’s tournament before too long.

Although you can not begrudge Ireland their Championship victory, as an England fan you are nonetheless reminded of the narrow margins. In the end Ireland and England were separated by ten points after both won four games out of five and secured eight points in the process. You can only think about what could have been; England seeing out the game better in the opener against France, thus preventing the winning score, or Danny Care’s try in the same game being awarded, or the ball not bouncing fortuitously for Yoann Huget to score in the opening stages. Any such outcome and England would have had the tournament and a Grand Slam. Likewise, had they not conceded the interception try to Italy and put on some more points in the games against Wales and Scotland, they would have overturned the points deficit with Ireland to sit top of the pile the previous weekend. Had France not missed a late penalty or had their late try not been disallowed, then France would have beaten Ireland and by doing so would have handed England the trophy.

We can always talk about what could have happened but the important thing is what did happen. England have played their best Six Nations for a long time, better than in 2011, when they last won the title, as they put in five good performances whereas three years ago they were comprehensively beaten in Dublin. They showed more attacking prowess and registered more tries than the 2012 and 2013 tournaments where they finished second behind Wales. This year there were more standout individual performances. Mike Brown was a revelation, scoring four tries, winning three Man of the Match awards and topping the charts for most clean breaks, most defenders beaten and most metres made. His transformation from bit-part player to key player is extraordinary, a deserved recipient of the Player of the Tournament accolade. Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes were excellent in the second row and aged respectively 22 and 25 they have the time to continue to forge a successful partnership for their country in future years. The halfbacks Danny Care and Owen Farrell were also fantastic, particularly the former upon his return to the starting XV. Meanwhile rookie centre Luther Burrell was one the tournament’s breakthrough players.

Stuart Lancaster has received criticism for substituting certain players during the tournament, decisions which were seen to have disrupted the side’s rhythm. Personally I wouldn’t have taken Care off in Paris. As one of our best players and instrumental in England’s fight back he should have remained on the pitch. Burrell could have been handed more time against Italy, it was the final game and so he did not need to be rested for the following match. That being said, the bench did contribute to England’s attacking play in Rome and had a hand in some late scores. Promisingly, England has a young and developing side, something that bodes well for the future, in particular next year’s World Cup on home soil. Importantly, there is also genuine competition in positions across the park.

Yet after recording a third successive second place in the Six Nations under Lancaster both he and his squad will know, as does every England supporter that the next step is to win some silverware and to pick up some wins against the Southern Hemisphere giants. This summer’s New Zealand tour would be a good place to start. In the long run there is no prize for finishing second or ‘nearly making it.’ Being victorious in a tournament and being consistently good is the way to etch one’s self into memory, folklore, books, magazines, video footage etc.

Now we wait and see what the future holds for this England side. The closure of the 2015 World Cup campaign will be an appropriate time to judge. This blog will look to revisit this area then. (I hope it turns out good!)

Pro-choice campaigners: representative of women and wider society?

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A Spanish pro-choice card distributed at a protest. Many Spaniards have demonstrated against proposed legislation seeking to restrict access to abortion in the country. (Photo: olgaberrios – https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26174182)

Abortion rights have long been championed by many feminist organisations and activists. Ever an emotive issue, access to an abortion is regarded as a woman’s fundamental right by such activists. But do they represent a majority of women? Let’s look at it.

Although one might make the assumption that females are more ‘pro-choice’ than males when it comes to abortion politics, perhaps significantly more so, polling and studies conducted over several decades have shown the attitudes of both sexes to be consistently in step with one another. Similar investigations have found education and religion to be better determinants of people’s opinions on the matter than gender. Generally, less religious individuals with third level qualifications are more liberal in their outlook.

In late 2012 when Britain’s coalition government advocated reducing the upper limit of 24 weeks at which abortions could be performed, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt along with cabinet colleagues Theresa May and Maria Miller drew the ire of Guardian and New Statesman commentators who believed that the trio, in calling for reductions, were acting against the interests of women.

Interestingly in a YouGov poll from earlier that year twice as many female than male respondents favoured a lower limit (49% to 24%). In an Angus Reid poll conducted shortly after the YouGov poll, the gap was wider (59% to 35%). Forty-seven percent of women supported a reduction in a 2006 MORI poll. On the questions of whether the NHS should fund abortions only in medical emergencies or whether minors should receive parental consent before undergoing the procedure, more men than women took ‘pro-life’ positions yet only marginally.

These findings and the others collected over the years, do not sit well with campaigners who have criticized male lawmakers for dictating to women what they must do with their bodies, when they themselves, as men, have no experience of pregnancy. Would the changes to abortion legislation, whether ‘pro-life’ or ‘pro-choice’ have occurred if the legislators had been predominantly female? At the same time, male-dominated legislatures have been responsible for relaxing abortion laws across many different countries over the last few decades.

On many social, political and moral questions most of us do not have particularly strong opinions, many of us being more inclined to ‘sit on the fence’ and take a more compromising, pragmatic stance. Abortion, to men and women, is no different. Absolute, black-and-white positions either way are in the minority. Female attitudes to abortion do not appear to be in line with the ‘pro-choice’ campaigners’ position, which is a constituency they purport to represent. This poses a wider question: does this relationship mirror those between other campaign groups and their respective ‘constituencies?’